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Ed takes aim at low value certificate programs

A growing chorus of critics is seeking to withhold federal financial aid from certain certificate programs. Ordinarily, criticism alone isn’t enough to generate impact. But one of the critics in this case happens to be the US Department of Education.

The certificate programs in question mostly originate from for-profit schools. These certificates don’t appear to have any measurable effect on the income levels of graduates. The Department of Education would like to change that. Not by increasing the value of these degrees, but rather by prohibiting students from using federal financial aid to pay for them. The idea is that by withdrawing federal support for these certificates, the bad actors will die a natural death.

While most of the bad actors originate at private, for-profit schools, public higher education institutions generate about 25% of them. For a school like Washtenaw Community College, the loss of federal financial aid would increase the pressure to trash these programs.

Which is good.

The Board of Trustees, which is supposed to provide oversight, doesn’t. Academic programs can fail for years, but currently, there is little incentive for WCC to cut them. The state legislature’s funding formula rewards a school for cranking out diplomas.

The US Department of Education would require higher education programs to demonstrate that program graduates out-earn high school graduates. Failure of a school’s certificate programs to exceed the earnings threshold could put the school in danger of sanctions.

Certificate programs have a serious value deficit

I’m not a fan of certificates in the first place. They might be acceptable for someone who already has a degree and is looking to augment their skill set. Too many schools – WCC included – push certificates as alternatives to degrees.

Nearly two-thirds of certificate programs leave earners worse off financially than they’d be if they just went to work. That’s a huge indictment of these programs, and that’s what the Department of Education wants to halt. In fact, it wants to finish the rulemaking for subtracting the financial reward for issuing virtually worthless certificates by November.

Ed proposes to set a minimum earning threshold for certificate holders. Those programs whose graduates chronically fail to exceed the earnings floor would get the Kiss of Death.

In WCC’s case, it’s a move that the Administration isn’t willing to make voluntarily. It’s also not something the Trustees would demand because they’re too busy dispensing advice.

Accountability also seems to fly in the face of the Michigan State Legislature, which has encouraged the diploma mill approach to higher education funding as a matter of fiscal policy since the Snyder administration.

Why support a community college administration and its Board of Trustees who will not look out for our community? Why continue to fund post-secondary programs that will keep people rooted in low-wage jobs? And why lend public funds to students who will remain trapped in inescapable debt?

I have said multiple times that WCC should make decisions about the fate of academic programs (certificate or otherwise) that cannot generate a living wage for graduates. It appears that after November, the Department of Education may require that.

Photo Credit: oddharmonic, via Flickr